Russia Diary #2: Saint Petersburg part I

We arrived in Saint Petersburg late at night, and after a good night’s sleep, we set out for a free walking tour (with petersburgfreetour.com), which I always recommend for your first day in a new destination – it’s a great way to familiarize yourself with the city. While the tour was great fun – we learned a lot about the history of the city and got some good tips from our guide – it was marred by two things:

One, the weather. It wasn’t because it was cold (though yes, it was freezing, “warmest winter in 133 years” or not), but rather, it was depressing. There wasn’t much snow; there was just gray slush on the ground and gray clouds in the sky. Against such weather, the stately architecture of Saint Petersburg ends up looking gloomy and menacing instead of imposing, and it’s understandable why the city is nicknamed “City of Sadness” (according to our guide, it only has 62 days of sunshine a year!)

The Kazan Cathedral, which is just opposite our Airbnb


Two examples of Saint Petersburg architecture – Neoclassical and Art Noveau

You can see how dirty the streets are by looking at the white car


Statues of two of the most famous Russian monarchs – Peter the Great and Catherine the Great

Two, I accidentally dropped my camera and damaged the lens, so after the tour, I had to scramble around trying to get it fixed, which ate up precious sightseeing time. But I was determined not to let it ruin the trip and eventually sorted things out (and don’t let the stereotype about the cold, unfriendly Russians fool you – the people at all the different camera shops I went to were so considerate and helpful, even if they couldn’t fix my lens.) We spent the rest of the evening walking around the streets, and I must say, under the twinkling lights, Saint Petersburg looks a lot prettier.


Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (so named because it was built on the site of the assassination of Alexander II), back and front

The Mikhailovsky Palace

The next day, we started out early for the Hermitage – pretty much the #1 thing to do in Saint Petersburg, and perhaps in Russia as a whole. I’ve been obsessed with the Hermitage ever since I saw Russian Ark in college, so this is a dream come true for me. Upon arriving, we realized we’d made the right decision to travel in winter – there was no crowd at all, as opposed to the summer, when the line can stretch around the block (you can always skip the line by buying tickets at the ticket machines just inside the main gate, but then you’d have to deal with the crowd inside.)

The Winter Palace

The Palace Square, with the Winter Palace on the one side and the General Staff building on the other (both belong to the Hermitage Museum)

Once inside, we soon discovered what the Russians did to combat the depressing weather outside – they gilded the shit out of everything. I’m not kidding. Everything is carved to within an inch of its life and covered in gold leaf.

Like so

Or so

The interior is so jaw-dropping that I almost forgot about the artworks themselves. Almost. We were there for half a day and only managed to see a fraction of the museum (a well-known rumor goes that if you spend one minute at each of the displays, you’ll need 11 years to cover the entire museum), but we did see all the important ones – the Jordan Staircase (you can’t miss it, as it’s the first thing you see upon leaving the cloakroom), the Raphael Loggias, the Italian Fine Art rooms (the Red Rooms), the Peacock Clock and the Pavilion Hall, and the Malachite Room.

The Jordan Staircase

Me being touristy at the Raphael Loggias


The Red Rooms

The Armorial Hall


The Gallery of the History of Ancient Painting and the October Staircase

The Peacock Clock

The Pavillion Hall

View of the Neva River from the museum

The Peacock Clock was supposed to be wound that day (it’s wound every Wednesday at 7 PM), but as we had to leave for the ballet, we missed it. But then again, you have to save something for next time, don’t you? We ended our day with a night at the ballet, which I’ve described here.

And that concluded our first two days in Saint Petersburg. More to come next week!


Russia Diary #1: Overview

This trip came about in a rather roundabout way. See, my friends and I had the idea of going on a trip to hunt for the Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights. However, when we looked at usual Aurora destinations, like Iceland and Scandinavia, they’re all expensive, and other than Aurora hunting and winter sports, there isn’t much to do there (and I’ve been to Iceland already.)

Then, during our searches, we stumbled upon Murmansk, a Russian city in the Arctic Circle that is growing in popularity as a destination for Aurora hunting due to its cheap prices and close proximity to big cities (it’s only a 2-hour flight away from Moscow). So I thought, why not go to Russia? Even if we didn’t see the Aurora, there would still be tons of things to do and see and we would still have a memorable trip nevertheless.

The idea of traveling to Russia in the depth of winter was a little daunting at first. The funny thing is, this is Russia’s warmest winter since 1886 (!!!), so we didn’t get a lot of snow. For us tropical dwellers though, their warmest is still pretty effing cold, but we got through it, and I’m glad we did, because I feel we got a more authentic experience. Lower prices and fewer crowds are always a plus too.

Besides, you can get scenes like this…

Or like this (it kinda looks like a horror movie, but still beautiful)

Or this

Since Russia is such a big destination, it took us some planning (the shopping for winter clothes alone took a lot of time, which I’m going to talk about in the packing post.) There is plenty of information on Russia travel out there, but here’s my experience:

– Visa: You probably need a visa to travel to Russia. The application requires a letter of invitation from Russia, which can be provided by a travel agency. We just did everything through an agency. It costs more, but it’s much less hassle.

– Money: We exchanged our money before leaving, but exchange places can easily be found in big cities. Our budget came out to about $50/day (about 3000RUB), but with transport and accommodation, it’s actually closer to $120/day. Russia isn’t that cheap.

– Accommodation: Since there are four of us, we decided that Airbnb would be easier than hostels (also, being old ladies at heart, we’re not keen on hostels anymore.) In Saint Petersburg, most of the attractions are around the town center, so it’s easy to find a place within walking distance. Moscow is more spread out, but the city is linked by an extensive metro network, so it shouldn’t be a problem either. Still, I recommend staying within the inner ring (the main roads of Moscow form a series of rings surrounding the Kremlin) because that’s where most of the restaurants and shops are. The center of Murmansk is tiny and as long as you stay around Lenina Prospekt (Lenin’s Avenue) and the Murmansk Mall, you’ll be fine.

Near our Moscow Airbnb. It’s a pedestrian street lined with restaurants and pubs

– Getting around: To save time, we traveled in a triangle (Saint Petersburg – Murmansk – Moscow) so we didn’t get to travel on Russia’s legendary railway. Instead, we took domestic flights between cities (we booked on tickets.ru, which has cheaper prices and also shows flights with free checked luggage – important, as we couldn’t travel carry-on only during the winter.) Within the cities themselves, we did a combination of walking, taxi, and public transport (I will talk more about this in my Moscow posts.) The Yandex Taxi app is the Uber equivalent of Russia; it’s much cheaper than traditional taxis and easy to use.

– Food: Luckily, food in Russia is relatively cheap. We ate pretty well, with a mix of fast food (mostly Russian fast food, like Teremok, which specializes in blini), sit-down meals, and home-cooked food. Russian restaurants usually have lunch “sets” – combo of soup/starter + main dish + drink – for 300-500RUB, which is a great deal. There are also cafeteria-style restaurants where you pick and pay for the dish you want. Out of all the traditional dishes I tried in Russia, my favorites are vareniki (dumplings), borscht (beet soup), blini, and honey cake. Also, make sure to keep warm with a lot of tea (not vodka!)

A very Russian lunch with borscht and vareniki

Georgian food is also a favorite – like these pork patties with mashed potato

Blini from Teremok

A cafeteria-style meal with a slice of honey cake

Coffee break – hot chocolate and pavlova

– Language: Other than the Metro, you won’t find a lot of English signs in Russia, so it helps to learn the Russian alphabet (I used a pretty fun app called Russian Cyrillic in 3 Hours). Some words may look totally foreign in Russian, but when you sound them out, you can actually recognize them (for example, “ресторан” is pronounced “res-to-ran”, and yes, it means “restaurant”.) English speakers are rare (in fact, we encountered more English speakers in Murmansk than anywhere else!) but Google Translate and body language can take care of it, so we never had any problem with communication.

The sign for Arbatskaya Metro Station

Stay tuned for more detailed posts about each city!


Malaysia Diary #2: Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur, or KL as most Malaysians call it, is often overlooked despite being the capital – usually, people view it as a stopover to get to other destinations or just a place for shopping. However, for the city traveler like me on this trip, it can have a lot of great stuff if you know where to look.

I arrived in KL from Melaka in the afternoon. After checking in at the Melange Boutique Hotel, I headed out to visit the famous Petronas Twin Towers. You can buy a ticket to go up on the walkway between the towers, but the very thought of it made me break out in a cold sweat, so I was quite happy snapping photos from the ground. I also popped into the huge shopping mall underneath – Suria KLCC – to buy a nice watch for myself. Know what you’re looking for and where it is, or you’ll waste hours inside (unless you’re into window shopping!)

Watch-buying mission accomplished, I continued to Thean Hou Temple, a Chinese temple dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy (the name is literally translated into “Heaven’s Queen”). It’s located outside of the city – you can walk there from KL Sentral, the main hub of transportation, but it’s a bit long (about 2 miles), and there are some scary parts where you have to cross the road with no traffic light or pavement. I find KL not a very walkable city, unlike, say, Singapore, for example. While most of the attractions are free, their locations are not convenient, so you end up paying for transport anyway.

I opted to walk because the road leads through Brickfields, KL’s Little India. It’s just one main street, but because of its small size, it feels much more… concentrated. The sights, sounds, and smells make it feel like a street plucked straight from New Delhi.

Finally, after an uphill trudge, I made my way to the temple. It looked quite impressive, with five storeys rising up on the hillside under the setting sun, and the intricate decorations on the roofs and ceilings are simply gorgeous. Another plus is that it wasn’t very crowded, which makes it a nice place to relax and watch the sunset.

As it was getting dark, I booked a Grab (SE Asian version of Uber) back into town and headed to Jalan Alor for dinner. This famous pedestrian street is a giant food court, and there were so many choices that I got overwhelmed. I’ve said before that I’m not much of a foodie while I’m traveling – to me, food is just fuel. But if you love food, then Jalan Alor is the place to be.

Afterward, I walked to KLCC Park to watch the light show at the fountains in front of the Twin Towers. However, I got the time wrong – I thought the show started at 10 PM, but it actually starts at 9:45 PM – so I only caught the tail end of it. It looked great though.

The next morning, I headed out early to go to the Batu Caves, the site of a famous Hindu shrine. Most guides say to get there early, but unfortunately, my train got delayed, so by the time I arrived, it was super crowded and super hot. So after climbing the 272 steps up the hill, wandering around the main cave for a bit, and taking some photos of the cheeky monkeys there, I returned to KL Sentral. It would’ve been nice to spend more time at the Caves and take in all the colorful architecture of the temples, but the crowd was stressing me out.


They may look cute, but they’ll steal your stuff – don’t have any food or drink hanging out!

I ended up seeking refuge from both the crowd and the sun at the Botanic Garden.

From there, I walked to Merdeka (Freedom) Square and Central Market for some souvenir shopping (my niece’s initial is KL too, so it was great fun looking for KL-themed things for her.) I briefly considered going back to KLCC Park to see the light show properly, but I was exhausted after a full day of walking, plus I had to pack, so it was back to the hotel for me.

The Sultan Abdul Samad Building on Merdeka Square

The Jamek Mosque

The Jamek Mosque viewed from the “River of Life” walk


The HQ of the Malaysian national oil & gas company, and Katsuri Walk, next to Central Market

The next day, I had some time before my flight, so I went out hunting for street art. My hotel is located in the hipster area of the town (Bukit Bintang) and there is plenty of street art just around the corner. It’s a great way to pass the time; plus as it was early in the morning, I practically had the streets to myself!

The view from my room

 

And that concludes my travel in Malaysia. If I had more time, I would’ve checked out some other destinations (like the Cameron Highlands), but I’ve had a good taste of the country too. And frankly, the experience of seeing Snow Patrol live is so wonderful already that this is really just the icing on the cake.


Malaysia Diary #1: Melaka

As mentioned in my post about the Snow Patrol concert, I chose to go to Malaysia because I wanted to combine seeing the show with some traveling, and Malaysia makes the most sense with the short time that I had (4 days).

So, the morning after the show, I set out for the city of Melaka (or Malacca), which is 1.5 hours away from Kuala Lumpur by bus (I booked the ticket online; you don’t have to as there is a bus once every 30 minutes, but as it was the holiday weekend in Malaysia, I thought it was better to be prepared.) Arriving in Melaka Central Bus Station, I was picked up by a driver from my hotel, Tripod – it is located outside of the Old Town, but it provides free transport to all the touristy areas, which is a big draw for me.

After checking in, I got dropped off at the Red Square in the center of the Old Town, so called because of the red colors of its Christ Church and the Stadhuys (town hall.) The Old Town of Melaka reminds me a lot of Hoi An, with its rows of traditional shop houses lining the river, but in a way, it reminds me of the Netherlands as well, with a river instead of a canal – not surprising, considering Melaka was under Dutch rule for over 100 years.

I had lunch at a riverside café and spent the rest of the afternoon just wandering around, turning down any alley or side street that caught my eyes.

Colorful houses of Melaka

I also had a great time searching for street art – it appears to be a Malaysian specialty, with every town and city having its own famous pieces:

I also came upon this gang of street cats

When it got too hot for walking, I took a river cruise (30 RM, which is about $7, for 40 minutes), which is a good way to cool off, rest your legs, and see the town.

More street art from the river!

You can also get a ride in one of the decked-out trishaws gathered on the Red Square, but they’re more expensive (about 25 RM/15 minutes) and a bit too touristy for me. Yes, the river cruise is touristy too, but I’d feel like a wimp riding around in a Hello Kitty or Minion-themed trishaw blasting “Gangnam Style” or “Let It Go” or whatever (but if that’s your thing, feel free!)

They’re certainly fun to look at though

Later in the afternoon, I got picked up by the hotel’s driver again to go to the Masjid Selat Melaka, or Melaka Straits Mosque, a mosque built on a manmade island on the Melaka Straits. It is almost prosaic compared to the outrageous mosques of Iran, but it’s cool in a modern kind of way. Besides, the best view is from the outside, at sunset and all lit up at nightfall. You’re not allowed to go out on the rocks to take photos, but everyone does anyway.

Afterward, the driver dropped me and a few other guests off at the Old Town again for the Jonker Walk night market, which sells everything from housewares to souvenirs and snack food. This is when the Old Town really comes to life. Everywhere there was a riot of colors, sounds, and smells. Even the river got lit up.

I went through Jonker Walk twice, nibbling on a few snacks in lieu of dinner, but eventually, the crowd got too much for me (though according to the driver, it was nothing yet!) so I retreated to the river and just sat there taking in the colors until it was time to go back to the hotel.

The next day (August 31) was the National Day of Malaysia and there was a big parade in town, but I’m not keen on crowds, so I just had a lazy morning at the hotel before heading to the bus station and back to Kuala Lumpur. If you’re a foodie, you may want another day in Melaka, but for me, one full day is just enough to see all that this small but lovely town has to offer.


Iran Diary #6: Shiraz

Shiraz is my favorite place in Iran for three reasons. One, the hotel, Niayesh, is easily the biggest and fanciest place I’ve stayed in during the whole trip. I booked a single room, but I was put in a huge room with a king-sized bed, and, get this, separate bathroom and toilet. If you’ve seen how tiny the bathrooms in Iranian hostels are, then you’ll appreciate the sheer joy of not having to put away the toilet paper every time you shower (to keep it from getting wet).

The hotel also has several restaurants, and it was here that I got to try dizi – a stew of mutton, beans, chickpeas, potatoes, and tomatoes. I wanted to try it not just because it’s traditional, but also because it’s so fun to eat. First, you pour the tomato sauce from the stew into your bowl and eat that with the flatbread. Then you mash up the stew itself and scoop it up with the rest of the bread. It’s good and very filling!

Two, I spent the longest time in Shiraz, so I actually got to know the city. Actually, I had just as long in Tehran, but in Shiraz, I wasn’t so exhausted that I couldn’t remember anything. Also, the sights in Shiraz are well incorporated into the “everyday” part of the city, so it feels harmonious and graceful.

I arrived in Shiraz late in the evening after my Persepolis tour, so I decided to take it easy. The next morning, I headed out early to beat the crowd to what is easily the second most famous attraction in Iran, after Persepolis – the Nasir-al-Mulk Mosque, aka the Pink Mosque, so named because of the pink roses on the tiles used to decorate it.


The exterior of the mosque

It’s best to visit the mosque from 8 to 11 AM, when the sun shines through its stained glass windows, so I was there at 7:30. Turned out I made the right decision – a Chinese couple was there before me, and another couple arrived just after me. Still, I managed to grab a couple of photos before the place filled up. It would’ve been nice to just sit there and watch the windows lit up, but alas, that’s the way it goes with popular destinations.

After a delicious breakfast at the hotel, I went to a couple of historical houses nearby – Naranjestan Qavam and Zinat-al-Mulk. They’re not as big as the ones in Kashan but better preserved, and surrounded by beautiful gardens. There are also museums attached to them, so you can learn more about the history of Shiraz.

Details of the mirror work at Zinat-al-Molk House

You can also rent traditional clothes for photoshoots at Naranjestan Qavam

Later, I headed to Vakil Bazaar, the main bazaar of Shiraz. However, thanks to my genius sense of direction, I ended up lost. That’s when I got to experience the third reason I fell in love with Shiraz – the kindness of its people. As I was wandering up and down the main street looking for the bazaar’s entrance, I ran into an elderly gentleman who spoke English. I asked him for direction, and he not only showed me to the bazaar but also spent the rest of the afternoon taking me to other sights in Shiraz – the Ali Ibn Hamzeh Holy Shrine (which is not as famous as Shah Cheragh, but it allows photos while Shah Cheragh doesn’t), Hafez’s tomb, and the Citadel.


A cool alley outside the bazaar, and colorful cloths being sold inside the bazaar

The Citadel with its “leaning tower”

The exterior of Ali Ibn Hamzeh shrine


And of course, you know the inside


It is still a working shrine, so at the gate, women are handed chador (a long cloak that covers your whole body) to wear


Tomb of Hafez, Iran’s most famous poet

Oh, and he insisted on treating me to lunch as well. Having read about taroof, a complex form of Iranian etiquette in which people may offer to pay for you (but it’s just their way of being polite), I tried to refuse, but he kept insisting, so in the end, I accepted. At least he let me pay for tea and snacks afterward!

A Shiraz specialty – cabbage rice with lamb meatballs


Fried dough with pomegranate juice, and ice cream with carrot juice (sounds weird, but it tastes really good!)

As we walked around the city, we talked about his family (he and his wife were both teachers, now retired), about Vietnam and Iran, and the culture and history of Shiraz. It was the best time I had in Iran. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have an email address or any kind of social media, so I don’t know how to stay in touch with him, but I’ll never forget him.

Sorry for the wonky photo. My phone and I are not used to selfies

And that makes for the perfect ending for my trip, because that’s what Iran is all about. The sights may be marvelous, but what’s more wonderful is the kindness of its people. From little things like the family sitting next to me in a restaurant in Kashan who reminded the waiter to take my order and the old lady sharing her trail mix with me on the bus to Yazd, to the grand gestures like this gentleman I met in Shiraz, it is what stays with me and what will bring me back to Iran.